The East London Liquor Company only began distilling back in July 2014, but it’s already made quite the impression. We headed to the creator’s home to find out how it supported independent spirits in the capital, carved a space for itself in English whisky, and why it has only scratched the surface.
When Alex Wolpert left drama school in 2006 he began working behind bars in East London, eventually getting to the point where he was running a group of pubs for the family shareholders at Barworks. It was during this time that he noticed a gap in the market.
“I worked in the on-trade for years and was amazed by the lack of championing of spirit made by the underdog,” he explains. “There was so little from independent producers, in a city with the best bars in the world. I felt that the spirit space was empty and couldn’t understand why”.
He went to his bosses with the idea for The East London Liquor Company and they backed it, today still lending support through a large portfolio of sites. With that investment and the money he got borrowing against his Hackney flat, in 2014 Alex set up The East London Liquor Company in the site of a disused glue factory warehouse he found while cycling by the waterways of East London.
He then ordered two copper pot stills from Germany, assembled a small team, and got to work. In the first year, the team was producing 1,000 bottles of gin a month for local bars and restaurants. “We spent six months distilling gins in order to find the perfect recipe,” Wolpert says. “Everything we made was always thinking about how people will enjoy it, removing as many barriers from that moment as possible”.
East London booze without boundaries
White spirits were the platform from which ELLC launched, but this was never simply a means to fund future whisky projects. The plan was always to have a range of booze, beginning with gin and vodka. This approach is exemplified by its gin selection, consisting of a classic juniper-forward expression that sells like hotcakes. There’s also Louder, a savoury, oily, and slightly saline gin that works great in a Negroni or a Dirty Martini, as well as Brighter Gin, the perfect base for a Gin Sour or Fizz with its bright, fresh, high-ABV character that lets Darjeeling and grapefruit notes shine. In 2020 the ELLC was even appointed to create the next generation of Royal Botanic Garden, Kew’s range of spirits.
Then there’s a selection of sourced rum made up of a vibrant, estery blend of spirits from three well-known Jamaican distilleries, and the sweet and tropical Rarer made with Demerara sugar cane. There’s even a range of canned cocktails, bolstered by the acquisition of Longflint Drinks Ltd. in 2020. “What we love about our canned serves is that you get a tactile understanding of what East London is about for a couple of quid. The cans aren’t just self-serving in that they generate more can sales, but they get people in contact with the brand who then realise how much we have to offer,” Wolpert says.
But, this is Master of Malt so we know what you’ll be most interested in is ELLC’s whisky. Things kicked off in 2018 with London’s first rye whisky in over a century. But this distillery is a hive of innovation. “For the first four years of us making whiskey we’ve been extremely experimental. What we worked we’ve bottled,” says Wolpert. “We’ve got an understanding now of what our London Rye and Single Malt are but along the way, there will be a lot of experimental products to show people what we’re about”.
Making whisky ELLC style
What they’re about is difficult to define in one article. So let’s start from the beginning. The ELLC sources grains (barley, rye, wheat) from Crisp Malt in Great Ryburgh, Norfolk. Fermentation is a long 96-120 hours in open-top stainless steel fermenters, with one to two days of acetic acid rest following to encourage diacetyl, a compound that encourages funky, tropical notes.
Arnold Holstein made the 2000-litre wash still and 650-litre spirits still (as well as a 450-litre gin still), the latter being unique in that it’s a hybrid pot/column still. After distillation, the spirit is diluted down to 55-62% ABV and popped into a cask. Operating at a relaxed, Monday-Friday rota, the capacity sits around 30,000 LPA, tiny still in the grand scheme of things.
The new make is slightly heavy and funky with lots of rich chocolate and fruit, while master distiller and blender Andy Mooney creates a slightly cloudy wort to get those biscuity, bolder flavours. He makes use of both pot and column still, the latter providing lighter profiles to make sure he’s getting the whole spectrum of flavour. When I toured the distillery with Wolpert I also got a chance to pick Mooney’s brain, and frankly, I needed some kind of industrial crane to get everything out from him.
A thoughtful, methodical and uber-geeky worker, Mooney breaks down the ELLC process in delightfully technical terms, for example: “We have a lot of control over fermentation to play around with different yeasts, like Saison (common in lambic or sour style beers). Where typical yeasts will eat maltose, fructose etc. these guys will eat everything including dextrins (larger sugar molecules) and that creates more acetic acid and diacetyl which leads to more esters, which develop awesome characteristics in the ageing process”.
The whisky is matured off-site in a huge range of barrels, including new American and French oak, chestnut, mulberry, acacia, ex- wine, rye, bourbon, Cognac and vermouth. I tried samples of Hungarian oak-matured rye, the same whisky matured in Pomerol casks, and then London Rye initially aged in ex-Laphroaig casks before spending time in chestnut wood. They were all spectacular in their own regard, demonstrating the spirit of experimentation and a competency in utilising different styles. They would work as single releases, although I imagine Mooney could use them to great effect in blending.
He tends to bottle whisky at 46-49% ABV, as he feels this highlights a bit of every aspect of the spirit profile. “If you go lower it can be too sweet and lose bitterness, go too high and you can get too much cask influence. If you want to water it down yourself you can do that. There will be cask strength in the future in all likelihood, but we want to establish our style first. That’s also why nothing is chill-filtered,” Mooney explains.
Single malt, rye and blend
As Mooney communicates the process with a distiller’s eye, Wolpert is consistently painting the bigger picture, describing the dual responsibility and opportunity an English whisky distillery has to make its own definitions. “What does it mean to make a London Rye? How do we make it specific to us? It’s open for us to make our own path,” he says. “I do get people saying ‘how do you make a single malt outside of Scotland?’, and if I had any hair I’d be tearing it out because we know that doesn’t matter. But we get to be at the forefront of the changing conversation”.
As we’ve covered the London Rye before, let’s talk single malt. It’s 100% malted barley (obviously) and was matured in a combination of bourbon and rye casks from Sonoma, red wines casks, STR casks and its own London Rye casks. The combination of casks was chosen because Mooney is somebody who is passionate about bringing as much to the spirit as possible, maximising the variety and clarity of flavour. “None of our whiskies are single cask for the reason, because we think it’s rare to get everything we want from just one cask. In the single malt, for example, the red wine cask lifts the fruity notes and adds some tannic bitterness,” Mooney explains.
As for the blend, this transatlantic collaboration was made by combining Sonoma whiskey and ELLC’s London Rye. “We used a high rye and wheat bourbon that was atypical of the classic styles you’d usually get, which allowed us to get a flavour profile we can’t create in the UK and what they couldn’t get in the US,” Wolpert says. “It’s what a blend should be all about, it’s greater the sum of its parts. Two entirely different processes coming together. It also shows we’re willing to stick our neck out and not take ourselves too seriously, and we’ve priced it at the same as the single malt to communicate that’s how vital we see blends. People have a narrow perception of blends so we have to work doubly hard to make sure people realise how special blends are and a real pinnacle of whisky production”.
A spirits brand for everyone
At present, ELLC distils, imports and serves a range of award-winning gins, whiskies, vodkas, rums and canned cocktails at a rate of 15,000 bottles a month to over 20 markets. For Wolpert, the ambition was to be a spirits brand for everyone, with sophisticated liquid but an accessible, transparent branding. “Andy left his recipe book out once with botanicals and weights etc. and someone on a tour said ‘what if I took a picture?’ I said ‘take one, it’s a huge compliment’. There’s so much smoke and mirror in this industry that it’s disarming for people. That’s why you can see the distillery from the bar. It’s a very different message to the educational process you get in a visitor centre, which we do provide, but we give customers a chance to chill out and have a couple so they feel looked after and engaged.”
The bar itself is not purely ELLC booze, it’s curated in such a way that the staff fill it with brands they respect, which speaks to the sense of community they feel within drinks and a confidence in their own product. Wolpert is very passionate about his local area, but also feels connected to world whisky as a category and a part of the growing English whisky scene. “We really relate to all the people who are interested in new ways of making and understanding whisky, as well as being interested in attracting new whisky drinkers. People get obsessed with the label and not the liquid, so we’re fighting against that and attempting to be at the centre of a conversation that understands what English, and London whisky is”.
It’s a conversation I very much enjoyed having with Wolpert and Mooney, while witnessing first-hand the care and focus that goes into the process. It’s a distillery I’ve always had a lot of time for, with its exceptional value for money white spirits and comfortable bar setting. But the nerdy and curious approach to whisky is what gets me really excited. If Wolpert had this range of booze to hand back in his bartending days, he would never have needed to create The East London Liquor Company at all.